Category: New York

CNBC Video on Construction Costs

There’s a CNBC video about construction costs. It references our data a bunch, and I’d like to make a few notes about this.

Urban rail and GDP

CNBC opens by saying better urban rail would increase American GDP by 10%, sourcing the claim to our report. This isn’t quite right: our report references Hsieh-Moretti on upzoning in New York and the Bay Area; they estimate that relaxing zoning restrictions in those two regions to the US median starting in 1964 would have, assuming perfect mobility, raised American GDP by 9% in the conditions of 2009 (and the effect size should have grown since).

The relevance of transportation is that the counterfactual involves both regions growing explosively: New York employment grows by 1,010% more than in reality, so by a factor of about five compared with actual 1960s population and about 3.6 compared with actual 2009 (in 1969-2009, metro employment grew 35.4%), and likewise San Francisco would be 3.9 times bigger than in reality in 2009 and San Jose, having had much faster growth in the previous decades in reality, would have still been 2.5 times bigger. Hsieh-Moretti assume infrastructure expands to accommodate this growth. But if it can’t, then the growth in GDP is lower and the growth in consumer welfare is massively lower due to congestion externalities, hence our citation of Devin Bunten’s paper on this subject.

So the issue isn’t really that building subways would increase American GDP by 10%. It’s that building subways paired with transit-oriented development, the latter proceeding at levels that would raise regional population at a somewhat faster rate than in 1900-30, would do so. The issue of costs in the United States is only peripherally connected with the lack of transit-oriented development, an American peculiarity in which more housing is built in poorer regions than in the largest, richest metro areas. In contrast, Canada gets TOD right and yet is rapidly converging to American construction costs, Toronto’s reaching around US$1 billion/km per the latest estimates. Germany, conversely, is rather NIMBY, although its rich cities still build much more than New York or the Bay Area, and is capable of building subways just fine.

The portrayal of Second Avenue Subway

The portrayal looks mostly good. It points out the tension between Second Avenue Subway’s extreme cost per km and reasonable cost per rider, the latter comparing very favorably with Los Angeles and about on a par with Grand Paris Express. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 was a bad project in the sense that it was severely overbuilt and poorly managed, but were it not possible to build it for cheaper (which it was), it would be a good value proposition, and even Phase 2 is marginal rather than bad. The issue is that New York’s cost-effectiveness frontier, at current costs, makes it capable of building a few km of subway per generation, whereas that of Paris, a city that isn’t especially cheap to build in, enables the 200 km Grand Paris Express.

The video goes over our comparison of station to tunnel costs, and connects this with various forms of surplus extraction; Eric gives examples of how cities demand betterments and do general micromanagement and threaten to withhold permits unless they get what he calls bribes. It gets the picture well for how important actors, up to and including the mayor of New York, just treat infrastructure as an opportunity to grab surplus for other priorities.

There are a few errors, all minor:

  1. The visualization of Second Avenue Subway has it running down First Avenue in Midtown and Downtown Manhattan, which was certainly not in the original plan and I think still is not.
  2. The video states the cost of Grand Paris Express at $38 billion, I think out of converting euros to dollars at exchange rate, whereas in PPP terms it’s $47 billion in 2012 prices and $60 billion in 2022 dollars, either way about 10 times the absolute cost of Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 for 10 times the projected ridership and 70 times the overall length. But the costs per rider are correct, at least.
  3. I’m not sure why, but the Madrid numbers are stated to be around $200 million/km, which is a cost that I don’t think exists there – costs in our database don’t include the latest lines there, but the ongoing expansion program is 40.5 km for 2 billion euros, which in PPP terms is around $70 million/km, I think all underground.
  4. The section on soft costs says that they were 21% of Second Avenue Subway’s overall costs, compared with a norm of 5-10% elsewhere. This is not quite true – they were 21% of the hard costs (and the same is true of the 5-10% figure); their share of overall costs was therefore a bit lower.

Carmen Bianco and Robert Puentes

Three people are extensively interviewed in the video. The first is Carmen Bianco, who was New York City Transit head in 2013-5. The second is Eric. The third is Eno’s Robert Puentes. The interviews are pretty good (by which I mean those with Bianco and Puentes – I of course find what Eric says good I’m the least impartial judge on this). There’s also a short quote from Bent Flyvbjerg about construction productivity, which isn’t quite true (productivity is rising in Sweden, just at lower rates than general growth).

Puentes talks about standardization, comparing the custom-designed stations in the United States with the standardized ones in Copenhagen. He also talks about the benefits of utilitarian stations and connects this with standardization – American subway and light rail stations aren’t particularly nice (the overbuilding goes to crew break rooms and crossovers, not passenger facilities), but one way local political actors get to feel important is making each station a bit different, and I’m glad he highlights this connection between overbuilding and poor standardization. But I think he somewhat errs in that he says that one cause of this among a few is that American cities build little subway tunneling. Copenhagen, after all, built its first line in the 1990s and early 2000s (using consultants, since there was no preexisting in-house staff and no political appetite to staff up); it just made the right design decision to standardize, which has helped it build a subway even at not especially low costs, in a fairly small city.

Then there’s Bianco, who I think appears talking more than anyone else, even Eric. He gives the standard list of problems in New York: it’s a dense city with a lot of complex underground infrastructure, utility relocation is difficult, and so on. At least on camera, he doesn’t make excuses. It’s just, complex historic utilities are not unique to New York, and I don’t know to what extent he understands that New York can learn this from Italian cities (or from London, which I believe has very good underground utility mapping). I assume Bianco isn’t generally great about this since he was in charge in 2013-5 and didn’t reform this system, but he doesn’t come off as repulsive, and it’s plausible that he’s more reasonable knowing not what he may not have 10 years ago.

Quick Note: New Jersey Highway Widening Alternatives

The Effective Transit Alliance just put out a proposal for how New Jersey can better spend the $10 billion that it is currently planning on spending on highway widening.

The highway widening in question is a simple project, and yet it costs $10.7 billion for around 13 km. I’m unaware of European road tunnels that are this expensive, and yet the widening is entirely above-ground. It’s not even good as a road project – it doesn’t resolve the real bottleneck across the Hudson, which requires rail anyway. It turns out that even at costs that New Jersey Transit thinks it can deliver, there’s a lot that can be done for $10.7 billion:

Source: Robert Hale at ETA

I contributed to this project, but not much, just some sanity checks on costs; other ETA members who I will credit on request did the heavy pulling of coming up with a good project list and prioritizing them even at New Jersey costs, which are a large multiple of normal costs for rail as well as for highways. I encourage everyone to read and share the full report, linked above; we worked on it in conjunction with some other New Jersey environmental organizations, which supplied some priorities for things we are less familiar with than public transit technicalities like bike lane priorities.

Doing Projects Right and Doing the Right Project

I’d like to develop a distinction between two modes of success or failure in infrastructure projects, which I’ve mentioned in brief in past post. An infrastructure project may be done right or wrong – that is, it could be built at a reasonable lifecycle cost and offer high quality of service or it could fail to do this, typically through very high upfront construction costs with no future benefit. But it could also be the right project to build or the wrong one – that is it could be the right priority for the region that builds it based on expected usage and future development or it could be a low priority, typically due to politicization of engineering and planning. Those are distinct judgments, and I’m not even sure they are strongly correlated.

The right project, done wrong

I’ve mentioned in a few past posts as well as videos that New York is for the most part building the right projects right now. Based on any reasonable cost per rider calculation, the highest priorities in the region excluding mainline rail are Second Avenue Subway phases 1 and 2, an extension of phase 2 under 125th Street, subway extensions under Nostrand and Utica Avenues, an orbital line following the Bay Ridge Branch toward Jackson Heights and Yankee Stadium, and a subway extension to LaGuardia Airport. Phase 1 has been built, and the current priorities are phase 2 and the orbital line under the moniker IBX, the latter giving the governor’s personal imprimatur to this important project. The only lower-priority extension built ahead of these is the 7 extension to Hudson Yards, which is a small fraction of the good projects by total cost.

In mainline rail, on the New Jersey side, the biggest priority is the Gateway tunnel and this is indeed what the state and Port Authority are most invested in. Even on the New York side, mainline rail is invested in in roughly the right priority order, especially if one fixes the assumption of bad present-day operations; the only real problem is that due to politics from the late 1990s, the MTA overinvested in New York-side mainline rail (that is, East Side Access) to secure suburban Republican support for Second Avenue Subway phase 1.

The problem for New York is that every single project it touches is executed in almost the worst way possible. It can’t build, and to an extent it doesn’t even want to build. The $50 billion in New York-side capital investment every five years are a large multiple of what peer cities spend, and what this buys is a few kilometers of subway every decade, escalating maintenance costs, and a vague promise to not quite finish making the subway accessible in the 2050s. But the little it does build is, for the most part, the right project.

New York is not the only city in this situation. The prioritization in Toronto seems fine to me, including the Downtown Relief Line rebranded as the Ontario Line, electrification and general modernization of commuter rail as part of the RER project, and rail on Eglinton. London, likewise, seems to be building projects in the right priority order, but it lost its ability to build in the 1980s and 90s so that its urban rail growth rate is roughly one new line per monarch and its step-free access program is proceeding at a slower pace than that of any peer except New York (which can’t build anything) and Paris (which can and does but doesn’t believe in accessibility).

Wrong projects

In contrast with the example of New York or Toronto, there are places where the prioritization is completely out of whack. The best example I can give of is Los Angeles. Like New York and other English-speaking cities, Los Angeles can’t build; unlike New York, it clearly wants to build, and has a large expansion program based on two separate sales tax referenda, with lines programmed through the 2060s due to the extreme construction costs. However, the capital prioritization is just wrong, in several ways:

  • The priority list puts low-usage extensions to the suburbs, like the Foothills Extension of the Gold Line and the West Santa Ana Branch, above core lines replacing high-usage buses like South Vermont and connectivity projects like linking Burbank and Pasadena directly.
  • The suburban extensions often use the wrong mode or alignment – Los Angeles loves freeway medians for light rail rights-of-way, is building some lines parallel to or even in the right-of-way of commuter rail in lieu of improving Metrolink, and was starting to run into capacity problems on the shared street-running section of the Expo and Blue Lines before corona even on an otherwise low-intensity system.
  • There is no transit-oriented development plan – the region is likely the NIMBY capital of the United States, and perhaps the developed world, with large swaths of valuable near-center land that’s about to get subway stations that’s still zoned single-family; in the state legislature, YIMBY bills increasing housing production typically get a large majority of the votes of politicians representing the Bay Area and a small minority of those representing the Los Angeles region.
  • Much of the referendum money is not even rail expansion, but road programs, including new freeway lanes.

The upshot is that while New York builds the right projects wrong, Los Angeles builds the wrong projects, besides its issue of very high construction costs.

In reality, most places are on a spectrum, or even evolve from one to the other based on political changes. San Francisco built the almost totally useless Central Subway due to demands by people in Chinatown who don’t even ride public transportation; the line is so short and deep that even ignoring its construction costs, its trip time benefit over the buses it’s replacing is maybe 30 seconds. However, the future projects it wants to build but can’t due to high costs – the Downtown Extension tunnel taking Caltrain from its present near-center terminus to the actual city center and a second BART tube across the Bay with an extension under Geary – are exactly the right priorities, and would have long been built anywhere that could tunnel for $250 million/km and not $1 billion/km.

Boston, likewise, is building the right priorities at the level of what lines are visible on the map, but it has the second of Los Angeles’s four problems in droves. The Green Line Extension should have been commuter rail; the commuter rail electrification project should be all-catenary and not the current plan of a combination of catenary and experimental battery technology; the deelectrification of the trolleybuses was just embarrassing. But the actual alignments – the Green Line Extension, the planned Red-Blue Connector, and the Regional Rail project – are the right priorities, at least.

The wrong project, done right

So far I’ve given American examples of poor construction practices. But there are also examples of places that build effectively but have poor prioritization. My own city, Berlin, is the best example I can think of: its construction costs are pretty average – higher than in Southern Europe, lower than anywhere that uses international English-dominant consultants – but its project prioritization is terrible.

The obviously lowest-cost-per-rider extension, that of U8 to Märkisches Viertel (see some references linked here), has been deprioritized due to bad politicking. The Green Party and the heir to the East German communist party, Die Linke, both oppose subway construction on ideological grounds and prefer trams, the Greens because they associate subway construction with making room on the surface for cars and Die Linke for a combination of being used to East German trams and general wrecker politics. In the outgoing coalition, the pro-subway Social Democrats pushed for the lines that were the most important for its own priorities and those happen to be in Spandau and at the airport rather than Märkisches Viertel; thus, the U8 extension was placed behind those.

As with the American examples in the previous two sections, here we must qualify judgment in that it’s rather common for cities to be on a spectrum. Even Berlin has better project prioritization than Los Angeles: for one, it is not as NIMBY, and the U7 airport extension does come with a transit-oriented development plan.

A more typical example is perhaps Paris. Paris’s project prioritization raises some questions, but there is no obviously low-hanging fruit like U8 that remains unbuilt due to East Germany and 1970s New Left dead-enders. The current expansion plans underrate core capacity, by which I mean separating the RER B and D tunnels, currently shared between Gare du Nord and Châtelet-Les Halles; but such a project would be disruptive if highly beneficial, and another core capacity project, namely the expansion of the RER E through the city to La Défense and western suburbs, is proceeding. The outward expansion of the Métro seems to be largely in line with what the most important priorities are; Grand Paris Express is a mix of good lines, that is Métro Lines 14, 15, and 16, and bad that is Line 17 to the airport and Line 18 linking two rich suburbs with little density in-between.

Moreover, the Paris suburbs, where practically all expansion is done, are fairly YIMBY. Francilien housing production in the late 2010s was 80,000-90,000 a year (in 2019 it was 82,000, or 6.7/1,000 people), with virtually no construction in the city proper – and moreover, the housing built in the suburbs tends to be infill replacing disused industrial land, or else it’s on top of planned Grand Paris Express or RER stations.


The poor project prioritization in the cities I’ve given the most attention to – Los Angeles but also Berlin and San Francisco and glimpses of Paris and New York – is entirely about politics. As the worst city of the bunch, Los Angeles has illuminating features that we can use to judge the others.

In Southern California, the most significant misfeature is the statewide requirement that all tax increases be approved in a referendum by a two-thirds majority. In San Francisco, the electorate is so left-wing that this hurdle is not hard to clear, and agencies can plan as always. In Los Angeles and San Diego, it is not, and to secure enough votes, agencies have to essentially bribe clientelistic actors with specific lines on a map that those actors will never use but still take credit for. This leads to all of the following misfeatures:

  • Ballot propositions that include not just expansion of the rail network but also subsidies to reduced fares for people with local New Left politics who identify politically against state planning, road expansion money for local notables who don’t mind rail expansion but think it’s too political to prioritize rail over cars, and long-term maintenance for unambitious bureaucrats who love spending that isn’t expected to produce concrete results.
  • An expansion program that gives each subregion its own line – in Los Angeles, this is the Orange Line BRT for the Valley, the Gold Line for San Gabriel Valley, and so on; the core is a subregion in its own right and can get a project too, like the Regional Connector subway, but it can’t be expected to get too many projects, and interregional connections are less important since the regions they serve already have their lines.
  • The planning is haphazard and avoids paradigmatic changes like modernizing the commuter rail system – Los Angeles has some advocates pushing for electrification, like Paul Dyson, and long-term plans to actually do it, but those plans are far behind what Caltrain electrification in the Bay Area (a perfect example of the right project done wrong) and what technical advocates are doing in Philadelphia and Boston.

In effect, a constitutional change intended to prevent California from wasting taxpayer money has had the opposite effect: the two-thirds majority requirement for tax hikes ensures that in Southern California, every petty actor is a veto point and therefore can get extra money. The New Left may comprise 1970s dead-enders trying and failing to reconcile their NIMBYism with the challenges of the 21st century, but it’s the New Right that destroyed the ability of the state to build anything.

With this in mind, we can look at the deviations in Berlin, San Francisco, and New York through the same lens. Berlin lacks any kind of New Right veto point system for investment; a majority in the Abgeordnetenhaus is sufficient, and its typical party of government, SPD, has decently developmental and YIMBY views, hobbled just now by an atypically bad leader and federal headwinds. However, the coalitions it’s in require it to provide sops to either NIMBYs (that is, the Greens) or drivers (that is, CDU). The outgoing all-left coalition deprioritized the U-Bahn to build trams, while the incoming CDU-SPD coalition wants U-Bahns but with park-and-rides and cessation of road diet programs. The difference is that the system in Los Angeles requires agencies to offer sops to both groups at once in addition to others.

One of the other actors, not present in Berlin beyond their influence on CDU, is the local notables. These are typically business owners, who as a constituency drive and overestimate the share of their customers who drive. In the United States (but not France or Germany) they may also trade on an ethnically marked identity, which is usually local and pro-car again since the (say) Chinese-Californians who take the train are usually Downtown San Francisco workers who socialize outside the neighborhood. The Central Subway was specifically a demand of such interests from Chinatown, who had opposed the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and demanded something that would look like a replacement, and in a way is, in the sense that neither the freeway nor the Central Subway is of any use for urban travel. Here, the difference with drivers as an interest is that drivers want more car infrastructure that feels to them like it makes their trips more convenient, whereas local notables want to be seen extracting money from the city or state to prove to their clients that they are powerful; for the notables, the cost is itself the benefit.

Excessive empowerment of local notables – that is, any empowerment – leads to both poor project prioritization and high costs. I don’t think there’s a high correlation between the two judgments, but it’s telling that the best example I know of of bad prioritization is high-cost Los Angeles, while medium-cost Berlin is much less bad. The other political mechanisms seem independent of costs: a system in which the state and developmental interests are hobbled by NIMBYism or by actors who want to annoy Greta Thunberg will underbuild or build the wrong things, but NIMBYs rarely manage to meaningfully raise costs and were entirely absent from any of the mechanisms we’ve found for high costs in our New York and Boston reports.

New York’s MTA Hates Transparency

The New York Post just published its piece, by Nolan Hicks, doing some construction cost comparisons. Nolan spoke to me multiple times on the subject of finding proper comparisons to New York’s subway station construction; he settled on the single most difficult Roman station, at the Colosseum, as well as a more prosaic station at Grand Paris Express and one on the Battersea extension in London. The goal was to look at the issue of New York’s overbuilt stations, with their full-length mezzanines and excessive back office space; New York’s stations turn out to be three to four times too expensive in his analysis.

So far, so good. But then there’s the official response to the story, which tells me that MTA head Janno Lieber is bad at his job – presuming that he views his job as about delivering good service, rather than stonewalling and kissing ass.

The Post quotes Lieber as saying, “you have to be careful with that subculture” and “those people get a lot of their cost information from the internet.” This is not too different from what he said when asked about our report by Jose Martinez: he got aggressive, said that we “group sourced” our data, and disclaimed responsibility for things that happened long ago, in the 2000s (Lieber at the time worked on the new World Trade Center).

People on Twitter are roasting Lieber about the phrases “that subculture” and “those people,” but I mind those appellations a lot less than what they are about. Lieber is in effect complaining that we use public sources for costs, which we access via the Internet, the same way we talk to other people in 2023. Using the Internet, for example, I can poke around for Swedish construction contracts, which are transparent with published lists of bidders and the winning bid, or I can look for historic German construction costs as reported in official channels and reputable media, and Marco can look for the same in Italy including publicly itemized costs, and Elif can look for the same in Turkey. What Lieber means when he says “information from the Internet” is really “articles in trade media and newspapers of record and detailed government reports, calibrated with some in-depth case studies to ensure we didn’t miss anything important.”

It jars him, perhaps because he’s used to secrecy. The idea that a report about the cost overruns of Grand Paris Express would just be out there, while the project was still going on, available to the public to review, may confuse Americans who are used to their country’s much lower level of transparency. In the US, everything requires affirmatively filing a freedom of information request that agencies can and often will deny on flimsy grounds. In Sweden, everything is online and I’ve been able to learn exactly how things work there from talking to not many people thanks to the wealth of public information about procurement strategy and individual contracts. The same is true of the issue of back office space and overbuilt station boxes – the MTA has not released blueprints, whereas in Sweden they’re available to the public in 3D.

Perhaps this is why Lieber talks to reporters with aggression and derision that fit would-be autocrats trying to put democratic media in its place. The idea that people would put all this information out there, voluntarily, seems weird to both, in the same way that a politician in an autocracy might find it jarring that politicians in democracies are subject to free media scrutiny.

This culture of secrecy cascades to itemized contracts. In our work, we’ve found that low-construction cost countries itemize their most complex rail infrastructure contracts, and the items are public. In the United States, contracts are fixed-price, and when agencies have itemized estimates as private benchmarks, they keep them from the public as a trade secret. MTA Construction and Development head Jamie Torres-Springer defended this system in November, saying that if the MTA revealed the numbers, contractors might use them as a floor.

Torres-Springer clearly stated a doctrine of the institutional culture that he and Lieber know. We can rate, overall, whether this culture is worth retaining, through seeing whether New York can build. It, of course, cannot. Lieber takes credit for delivering some projects for less than the budgeted amount, but the budget was inflated with large contingency figures; when someone promises to build something for $70 million and delivers it for $65 million, you don’t give credit for going under budget when other systems deliver it for $12 million. (These are all rough costs of making a subway station that is not a transfer wheelchair-accessible using three elevators in New York and some comparison cases respectively.)

Meanwhile, other systems, outside the high-cost Anglosphere (update 3-28: here is Ontario engaging in the same repulsive behavior toward Global News on the costs of the Ontario Line), can deliver. Germany doesn’t want to build much infrastructure unfortunately, but when it wants, it gets it done at reasonable if not low costs – and those costs are barely higher now in real terms than they were in the 1970s, having inched from maybe 150 million euros per km of subway to 200. Paris is building 200 km of mostly underground driverless metro, for about the same cost as one five-year MTA capital plan. Istanbul builds many metro lines all at once and may be the world’s top city in total route-length built this decade if Chinese investment slows down – Turkey is not a rich country but it has figured out how to build cheaply so that it can afford it. Seoul is expanding so rapidly, using so many different networks, that I can’t even track how much it builds. Italy not only can keep building infrastructure despite not having much money, but also managed to cut its real costs by adopting transparency as a core principle in the 1990s; contra Torres-Springer, contractors use published itemized costs as an anchor and not a floor.

But New York is the city that can’t, in the state that can’t. It treats a three-station subway expansion as a generational project. It clings to its way of doing things in face of obvious evidence that this way does not work; when it wants to do something different, it privatizes the state to consultants and huge design-build contractors, which has consistently raised costs wherever it is implemented. It’s not even aware of how success looks. Its leadership is rather like a Russian general who, seeing the army throw countless soldiers to take individual blocks of Bakhmut, population 70,000, insists things are going great and there is no need for anyone to learn anything about NATO standards, before ordering another wave of assault.

The press is ahead of the curve on this, since it does not need to kiss ass. I’ve been a source for New York media and for US-wide wonk networks for years, and the great majority of journalists I’ve spoken with, veterans and newcomers, generalists and specialists, have been curious and intelligent and could tell me important things I didn’t know before, including, in particular, reporters on this beat at all major city papers, such as Nolan. I sadly cannot say the same of MTA management: the career civil servants are good below the managerial level, the managers are hit-or-miss, and the political appointees are more miss than hit. The way the latter try to pull rank on good journalists like Martinez and Nolan is supercilious, authoritarian, and just plain nasty.

And if New York wants to avoid looking as ridiculous as that Russian general, it had better learn how successful cities do it, and invite in people who are intimately familiar with these cities to take in-house leadership jobs to implement the required reforms. This means, among other things, fostering a culture of openness and transparency. No more putdowns of journalists who ask hard questions, no more hiding behind NDAs and trade secrets, no more black boxes with no itemization beyond “this contract is $1 billion.” It’s easier than for Russia – the American field-grade officers who could do every Russian general’s job better don’t at all have Russia’s interests at heart, whereas the Continental European and East Asian transit managers who New York can bring it can be hired to have the MTA’s interests at heart, just as Andy Byford was. Learn from the best and face the reality that right now New York is the worst.

New York Can’t Build, LaGuardia Rail Edition

When Andrew Cuomo was compelled to resign, there was a lot of hope that the state would reset and finally govern itself well. The effusive language I was using at the time, in 2021 and early 2022, was shared by local advocates for public transportation and other aspects of governance. A year later, Governor Hochul has proven herself to be not much more competent than Cuomo, differing mainly in that she is not a violent sex criminal.

Case in point: the recent reporting that plans for rail to LaGuardia Airport are canceled, and the option selected for future development is just buses, makes it clear that New York can’t build. It’s an interesting case in which the decision, while bad, is still less bad than the justification for it. I think an elevated extension of the subway to LaGuardia is a neat project, but only at a normal cost, which is on the order of maybe $700 million for a 4.7 km extension, or let’s say $1 billion if it’s mostly underground. At New York costs, it’s fine to skip this. What’s not fine is slapping a $7 billion pricetag on such an endeavor.

LaGuardia rail alignments

On my usual base map of a subway system with some lines swapped around to make the system more coherent but no new construction, here are the various rail alignments to the airport:

A full-size image can be found here. All alternatives are depicted as dashed lines; the subway extension is depicted in yellow in the same color as the Astoria Line, and would be elevated until it hit airport grounds, while the other two options, depicted as thinner black lines, are people movers or air trains. The air train option going east of airport grounds was Cuomo’s personal project and, since it went the wrong way, away from Manhattan, it was widely unpopular among anyone who did not work for Cuomo and was for all intents and purposes dead shortly after Hochul took office.

The issue of construction costs

Here’s what the above-linked New York Times article says about the rail alignments.

The panel’s three members — Janette Sadik-Khan, Mike Brown and Phillip A. Washington — said in a statement that they were unanimous in recommending that instead of building an AirTrain or extending a subway line to the airport, the Port Authority and the transportation authority should enhance existing Q70 bus service to the airport and add a dedicated shuttle between La Guardia and the last stop on the N/W subway line in Astoria.

The panel agreed that extending the subway to provide a “one-seat ride” from Midtown was “the optimal way to achieve the best mass transportation connection.” But they added that the engineers that reviewed the options could not find a viable way to build a subway extension to the cramped airport, which is hemmed in by the Grand Central Parkway and the East River.

Even if a way could be found to extend the subway that would not interfere with flight operations at La Guardia, the analysis concluded, it would take at least 12 years and cost as much as $7 billion to build.

The panel realized that the best option is an extension of the subway. Such an extension would be about 4.7 km long and around one third underground, or potentially around 5 km and entirely above-ground if for some reason tunneling under airport grounds were cost-prohibitive. This does not cost $7 billion, not even in New York. We know this, because Second Avenue Subway phase 1 was, in today’s money, around $2.2 billion per km, and phase 2 is perhaps a little more. There are standard subway : elevated cost ratios out there; the ones that emerge from our database tend to be toward the higher end perhaps, but still consistent with a ratio of about 2.5.

Overall, this is in theory pretty close to $7 billion for a one-third underground extension from Astoria to the airport. But in practice, the tunneling environment in question is massively easier than both phases of Second Avenue Subway – there’s plenty of space for cut-and-cover boxes in front of the terminal, a more controllable utilities environment, and not much development in the way of the elevated sections, which are mostly in an industrial zone to be redeveloped.

Does New York want to build?

New York can’t build. But to a significant extent, New York doesn’t even want to build. The report loves finding excuses why it’s not possible: they are squeamish about tunneling under the runways, they are worried an above-ground option would take lanes from the Grand Central Parkway (which a rail link would substitute for at higher capacity), they are worried about federal waivers.

In truth, in a constrained city, everything is under a waiver. In comments years ago, Richard Mlynarik pointed out that the desirable standard for railroad turnouts is that they should be straight – that is, the straight path should be on straight track, while the speed-restricted diverging path should curve away. But in practice, German train stations are full of curved turnouts, on which both paths are on a curve, because in a constrained urban zone it’s not possible to realize the desired standard, and a limit value is required. The same is true of any other engineering standard for a railroad, such as curve radii.

The issue of waivers is not limited to engineering or to rail. Roads are supposed to follow design standards, but land-constrained urban motorways are routinely on waivers. Even matters of safety can be grandfathered occasionally on a case-by-case basis. Financial and social standards are waived so often for urban megaprojects that it’s completely normal to decide them on a case-by-case basis; the United States doesn’t even have formal benefit-cost analyses the way Europe does.

And I’ve seen how American agencies are reluctant to even ask for waivers for things that politicians don’t really care about. Richard again brings up the example of platform heights on the San Francisco Peninsula: Caltrain rebuilt all platforms to a standard that didn’t have any level boarding, on the grounds that high platforms would interfere with oversize freight, which does not run on the line, and which the relevant state regulator, CPUC, indicated that they’d approve a waiver from if only the railroad asked. I have just seen an example of a plan to upgrade some stations in the Northeast that is running into trouble because the chosen construction material isn’t made in the United States, and even though “there’s no suitable made in America alternative” is legal grounds for a waiver from Buy America rules, the agency doesn’t so far seem interested in asking.

In general, New York can’t build. But in this case, it seems uninterested in even trying.

The bus alternative

Instead of a rail link, the plan now is to improve bus service. Here’s the New York Times story again:

The estimated $500 million in capital spending would also go toward creating dedicated bus lanes along 31st Street and 19th Avenue in Queens and making the Astoria-Ditmars Blvd. station on the N and W lines accessible to people with disabilities, the Port Authority said. Some of that money could also be spent to create a mile-long lane exclusive to buses on the northbound Brooklyn-Queens Expressway between Northern Boulevard and Astoria Boulevard, the Port Authority said.

Among the criticisms of the AirTrain plan was its indirect route. Arriving passengers bound for Manhattan would have had to travel in the opposite direction to catch a subway or L.I.R.R. train at Willets Point. The Port Authority chose that route, alongside the parkway, to minimize the need to acquire private property. Community groups were also concerned about the impact on property values in the neighborhoods near La Guardia in northern Queens.

To be very clear, it does not cost $500 million to make a station wheelchair-accessible. In New York, the average cost is around $70 million in 2021 dollars, with extensive contingency, planned by people who’d rather promise 70 and deliver 65 than promise 10 and deliver 12. In Madrid, the cost is around 10 million euros per station, with four elevators (the required minimum is three), and in Milan, shallow three-elevator station retrofits are around 2 million per station. Transfer stations cost more, proportionately to the number of lines served, but Astoria-Ditmars is not a transfer station and has no such excuse. So where is the other $430 million going?

The answer cannot just be bus lanes on 31st Street (on which the Astoria Line runs) or 19th Avenue (the industrial road the indicated extension on the map would run on). Bus lanes do not cost $430 million at this scale. They don’t normally cost anything – red paint and “bus only” markings are a rounding error, and bus shelter is $80,000 per stop with Californian cost control (to put things in perspective, I heard a $10,000-15,000 quote, in 2020 dollars, from a smaller American city).

We Gave a Talk About Our Construction Costs Report

Here are the slides; they are not in Beamer format but in Google Slides. They’re largely a summary of the New York report with analysis informed by the overview with more direct comparisons with other cities, and for example the recommendation section won’t tell you anything you didn’t know if you’ve read the overview or heard me talk about this issue before.

But I want to highlight one addition: the cost history of New York, on slides 5-8. Costs were elevated even in the 1930s; the references are JRTR for New York, Pascal Désabres for Paris, and Tube History for London. Midcentury New York costs are sourced to New York Magazine, with a Wikipedia article providing some references that match those numbers. The excessive costs of works in the 1930s ensured that the budget would not be sufficient to build desirable lines like Second Avenue Subway, an extension of the Nostrand Avenue Line to Sheepshead Bay, and a line under Utica; those costs kept growing into the 1950s and 60s, and the total amount of money at hand for Second Avenue Subway in the 1950s, about a fifth of the intended budget, would have built the entire line at the then-current costs of Milan or Stockholm. At even semi-reasonable costs, the budget identified for Second Avenue Subway in the late 1990s would have built the entire line, where instead it was cut into four phases with the money only sufficient to build the first.

The overall presentation was a bit stressful for me, especially at the beginning; the talk started at 3 in the afternoon and we finished the slide deck around 2:45. It was better afterward. One caution is that while the talk was recorded, it was a cellphone recording from the back, so Elif and I were not easy to hear. Another is that there were people I was hoping to talk to after the presentation that I didn’t get to; the attendance was on the order of 80 people, and we needed the full two hours we had the room booked for the presentation and Q&A afterward.

A number of people asked us if anything was changing. Eric seems more optimistic that people are listening. I’m less so; we’re talking to some people at government agencies but I can’t tell how important they are (I do not speak Washingtonian and cannot tell from the name and title of someone I talk to where they are on the spectrum of “someone who follows me on social media” to “Pete Buttigieg’s closest confidant”). At the MTA, things are not changing for the better; union head John Samuelsen is under the impression that French employers don’t have to pay pensions, MTA Construction and Development head Jamie Torres-Springer thinks the Second Avenue Subway stations have higher ridership than the stations of Citybanan, MTA head Janno Lieber is in full denial mode, and so on. The excuses might be getting more sophisticated, but, fundamentally, an American manager whose gut reaction to any kind of global benchmarking is to assert with perfect confidence that European employers don’t have to pay benefits needs to be fired and retrained, not given advice on how to come up with more plausibly-sounding excuses. Lieber and Torres-Springer are worth negative billions of dollars to the city and the state while they remain employed.

While some things are improving, the procurement problems are getting worse due to the growing privatization of the state, and, fundamentally, none of those people is willing to admit their mistake. There are some ongoing experiments in New York with itemized costs, but only as part of a PPP privatization, and only as pilots, where the place where itemizing costs and technical scoring are the most helpful is in the biggest and most complex contracts. Government-by-pilot doesn’t work any more than any of the other gimmicks that dimwitted political appointees use to avoid taking responsibility for decisions.

I’m Giving a Talk in New York on 3/3

We’re launching the Transit Costs Project conclusion and New York case this Friday at 3 pm. Unlike the October panel, this will not be moderated – Eric, Elif, and I will just talk about our report and take questions from the audience. While the talk will almost certainly be recorded, if you’re in the area you should still come in-person in order to be able to ask questions and interact.

As in our October event, the location is room 1201 of 370 Jay Street in Brooklyn, right on top of the subway stop that carries its name with A/C, F, and R service, and not far from other Downtown Brooklyn stops like Borough Hall on the 2/3/4/5, DeKalb Avenue on the B/Q, and Hoyt-Schermerhorn on the G. The building has access control so please tell us your name and email on this RSVP form so that security will know you can get in. If you crash the event you may still be allowed in but I won’t know until the day of, so do RSVP if you think you may attend; technically the room is capped at 180 people, around half seated, but I don’t expect to fill to even seated capacity, so don’t worry about taking someone else’s place.

Cost and Quality

From time to time, I see people assume that low-construction cost infrastructure must compromise on quality somehow. Perhaps it’s inaccessible: at a Manhattan Institute event from 2020, Philip Plotch even mentioned wheelchair accessibility as one factor leading to the increase in costs since the early 1900s; one of my long-term commenters on Twitter just repeated the same point. Perhaps the stations are cramped: I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the “transit riders deserve great stations” point from various Americans (there are several such examples in the thread in the last link alone), or for that matter from the people who built the Green Line Extension, and even Korean media got in on the action, falsely assuming that the spartan, brutalist stations of the Washington Metro were cheap (in fact, Washington is building an above-ground infill station for around an order of magnitude higher cost than Seoul’s cost for an underground infill station).

Please, stop.

If you want to know what very low-cost metro construction looks like, recall that the existing about 104 km (about 57 underground) Stockholm Metro was built in the middle of the 20th century for $3.6 billion in 2022 dollars. Here’s how the stations look:

Source: Wikipedia, by Tim Adams; description in text below

Stockholm is famous for its exposed rock: the hard gneiss forms natural arches, and the T-bana elected to paint it over from the inside, producing the bright blue-and-white contrast with dark blue leaf paintings depicted above at T-Centralen. The stations look drastically different from one another, with many examples available from UrbanRail.Net, Flickr user Dyorex, Flickr user Kotka Molokovich, and the travel site Walk Slow Run Wild.

Swedish construction costs today are several times higher, but remain below world average, and are nearly a full order of magnitude lower than in New York. The stations remain artistic, but this coexists with consistent, standardized engineering specs, modified based on local conditions only when necessary. Citybanan’s Odenplan is not at all spartan; the entire station, berthing 214 meter trains mined below the T-bana station by the same name, cost $250 million in 2022 dollars, which cost includes not just the station but also 2 km of mined tunnel. The data that I’ve seen while researching our Sweden case suggests that Nya Tunnelbanan station costs are dominated by civil infrastructure and not systems or finishes, which look like they’re about a quarter of overall station costs, rather than nearly half as in New York. Nice art is not expensive; for that matter, New York’s subway stations have pretty tiles, and this includes old stations predating the 1930s’ cost explosion.

Moreover, I doubt it was the case when the system was first built, but nowadays the entire T-bana is accessible to wheelchair users. In fact, a number of metro systems have made themselves fully accessible or are in the process of doing so, generally at low costs; I have some numbers from 2019, and the programs cited for Berlin and Madrid are behind schedule, but Berlin seems to be sticking to a budget of 2 million € for an ordinary station, and even taking into account inflation that Berlin needs one elevator per station and most cities need three, this isn’t quite $10 million per station, a cost similar to that of Madrid’s ongoing program. In New York, the cost cited for accessibility is $70 million per station.

What goes on here isn’t really a matter of high quality for high cost. In fact, when Eric, Elif, and I researched the New York case, we were stricken by how little of the problem concerned actual quality or safety regulations (for example, the fire code in New York in practice requires mezzanines at the depth of Second Avenue, but does not require them to be full-length). The oversize stations are neither grand public atria nor revenue-generating commercial spaces, but rather conventional stations flanked by excessive amounts of back office space. The lack of standardization concerns fittings, not art. The massive costs of New York elevator installation are barely about redundancy (a requirement driven by low but fixable reliability) and largely about utility conflicts, bad-and-worsening project delivery, and the soft costs crisis.

Making the user experience worse is an easy way to signal that one is cutting costs. It’s a combination of vice-signaling and prudence theater. It also has little to do with how actually low-cost infrastructure construction programs look like. They can be highly standardized even without the artistic component found in Sweden and Finland, and then people may complain that the system looks bland and corporate – but bland and corporate is not the same as spartan, it just means it looks like the 21st century and not the imagined 20th.

Good systems are certainly not willing to make compromises on human rights and build inaccessible infrastructure. In Seoul, there are massive protests by disabled people demanding that the Seoul subway go from 93% to 100% accessible and that the bus fleet immediately be transitioned to low-floor equipment, and meanwhile, New York and London both loiter around 25-30% accessibility. The conservative governments of the state and the city both dither, but past competence by Korea has led to high expectations by users, in the same manner that people in developed country protest inequality and poverty even fully knowing that it’s nowhere near as bad as in the third world. While I don’t know Seoul’s accessibility costs, I do know a deep-bored Line 9 extension with an undercrossing of Line 5 is budgeted at $180 million/km.

Our Construction Costs Reports are Out!

Both the New York-specific report and the overall synthesis of all five cases plus more information from other cities are out, after three years of work.

At the highest level, it’s possible to break down the New York cost premium based on the following recipe:

To explain the animation a bit more:

  • New York builds stations that are 3 times too expensive – either 3 times too big (96th Street) or twice as big but with a mining premium (72nd and 86th Streets). The 2.06 factor is what one gets when one takes into account that stations are 77% of Second Avenue Subway hard costs. This is independent of the issue of overall train size, which is longer in New York than in most (though not all) comparison cities.
  • New York’s breakdown between civil structures and systems is about 53.5:46.5, where comparable cases are almost 3:1. This is caused by lack of standardization of systems and finishes, which ensures that even a large project has no economies of scale. This is a factor of about 2.3 increase in system costs, which corresponds to an overall cost increase of a factor of about 1.35. Together with the point above, this implies that the tunneling premium in New York is low, compared with system and station cost premiums, which I did notice in comparison with one Parisian project five years ago.
  • Labor is 50% of the hard costs in the Northeastern United States; in our comparison cases, it ranges between 19% and 31%, and in Stockholm, which as the highest-wage comparison city is our closest analog for the United States, Citybanan’s contract costs were 23% labor. The difference between 50% labor and 25% labor is a factor of 3 difference in labor, coming from a combination of blue- and white-collar overstaffing and some agency turf battles that are represented as more workers, and a factor of 1.5 difference in overall costs.
  • Procurement problems roughly double the costs; the factor of 1.85 is 2/1.08, dividing out by the usual 8% profit factor in Italy. Those problems can be broken out in different ways, but include red tape imposed by American agencies, red tape imposed by some specific regulations, a risk compensation factor whenever risk is privatized (just not itemizing costs by itself adds 10-20%, and there are other aspects of risk privatization).
  • Third-party design costs add more. There are two ways to analyze it, both of which give about the same figure of a factor of 1.2 increase in costs: first, third-party design and management costs add 21% to Second Avenue Subway’s hard costs where various European comparanda add 7-8%, but the 21% should be incremented to 31% by adding the factor of 1.5 labor premium; and second, the inclusion of all soft costs combined is around 25% extra in Italy and 50% extra in New York, with the caveat that what counts as soft costs and what’s bundled into the hard costs sometimes differ.

I urge people to quote the cost premium as, at a minimum, a factor of 9-10, and not 9.34; please do not mistake the precision coming from needing to multiply numbers for accuracy.

I also urge people to read the conclusion and recommendations within the synthesis, because what we’ve learned the best practices are is not the same as what many reformers in the Anglosphere suggest. In particular, we urge more in-house hiring and deprivatization of risk, the exact opposite of the recipe that has been popularly followed in English-speaking countries in the last generation with such poor results.

Finally, if people have questions, please ask away! I read all comments here, and check email, and will vlog tomorrow on Twitch at 19:00 Berlin time and write any followups that are not already explained in the reports.

High Costs are not About Precarity

I’ve seen people who I think highly of argue that high construction costs in the United States are an artifact of precarity. The argument goes that the political support for public transportation there is so flimsy that agencies are forced to buy political support by spending more money than they need. This may include giving in to NIMBY pressure to use costlier but less impactful (or apparently less impactful) techniques, to spread money around with other government agencies and avoid fighting back, to build extravagant and fancier-looking but less standardized stations, and so on. The solution, per this theory, is to politically support public transportation construction more so that transit agencies will have more backing.

This argument also happens to be completely false, and the solution suggested is counterproductive. In fact, the worst cost blowouts are for the politically most certain projects; Second Avenue Subway enjoyed unanimous support in New York politics.

Cost-effectiveness under precarity

Three projects relevant to our work at the Transit Costs Project have been done exceptionally cost-effectively in an environment of political uncertainty: the T-bana, the LGV Sud-Est, and Bahn 2000.


The original construction of the T-bana was done at exceptionally low cost. We go over this in the Sweden report to some extent, but, in short, between the 1950s and 70s, the total cost of the system’s construction was 5 billion kronor in 1975 prices, which built around 100 km, of which 57% are underground. In PPP 2022 dollars, this is $3.6 billion, or $35 million/km, not entirely but mostly underground. This was low for the time: for example, in London, the Victoria line was $122 million/km and the Jubilee line was $172 million/km (source, p. 78), and Italian costs in the 1960s and 70s were similar, averaging $129 million/km before 1970.

The era of Social Democrat dominance in Swedish politics on hindsight looks like one of consensus in favor of big public projects. But the T-bana itself was controversial. When the decision was made to build it in the 1940s, Stockholm County had about 1 million people; at the time, metros were present in much larger cities, like New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo, and it was uncertain that a city the size of Stockholm would need such a system. Its closest analog, Copenhagen, did not build such a system until the 1990s, when it was a metro region of 2 million. It was uncertain that Stockholm should need rapid transit, and there were arguments for and against it in the city. Nor was there any transit-first policy in postwar Sweden: urban planning was the same modernist combination of urban renewal, automobile scale, and tower-in-a-park housing, and outside Stockholm County, the Million Program projects were thoroughly car-oriented.

Construction costs in Sweden are a lot higher now than they were in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Nya Tunnelbanan is $230 million/km, compared with a post-1990s Italian average of $220 million; British costs have exploded in tandem, so that now the Underground extensions clock at $600 million/km. Our best explanation is that the UK adopted what we call the globalized system of procurement, privatizing planning functions to consultants and privatizing risk to contractors, which creates more conflict; the UK also has an unusually high soft cost factor. From American data (and not just New York) and some British data, I believe that the roughly 2.5 cost premium of the UK over Italy is entirely reducible to such soft costs, procurement conflict, risk compensation, and excessive contingency. And yet, Sweden itself, with some elements of the same globalized system, maintains a roughly Italian cost level, albeit trending the wrong way.

And today, too, the politics of rail expansion in Sweden are uncertain. There was controversy over both Citybanan and Nya Tunnelbanan, neither of which passed a cost-benefit analysis (for reasons that I believe impugn the cost-benefit analysis more than those projects); it was uncertain that either would be funded. Controversy remained over plans to build high-speed rail connecting Stockholm with Gothenburg and Malmö, and the newly-elected right-wing government just canceled them in order to prioritize investment in roads. Swedish rail projects today remain precarious, and have to justify themselves on cost and efficiency grounds.

LGV Sud-Est

Like nearly all other rich countries, France was hit hard by the 1973 oil crisis; economic growth there and in the US, Japan, and most of the rest of Western Europe would never be as high as it was between the end of WW2 and the 1970s (“Trente Glorieuses“). On hindsight, France’s response to the crisis models can-go governance, with an energy saving ad declaring “in France we don’t have oil, but we have ideas.” The French state built nuclear power plants with gusto, peaking around 90% of national electricity use – and even today’s reduced share, around 70%, is by a large margin the highest in the world. At the same time, it built a high-speed rail network, connecting Paris with most other provincial cities at some of the highest average speeds outside China between major cities, reaching about 230 km/h between Paris and Marseille and 245 km/h between Paris and Bordeaux; usage per capita is one of the highest in Europe and, measured in passenger-km, not too bad by East Asian standards.

But in fact, the first LGV, the LGV Sud-Est, was deeply controversial. At the time, the only high-speed rail network in operation was the Shinkansen, and while France learned more from Japan than any other European country (for example, the RER was influenced by Tokyo rail operations), the circumstances for intercity were completely different. SNCF had benefited from having done many of its own experiments with high-speed technology, but the business case was murky. SNCF had to innovate in running an open system, with extensive through-running to cities off the line, which Japan would only introduce in the 1990s with the Mini-Shinkansen.

Within the French state, the project was controversial. Anthony Perl’s New Departures details how there were people within the government who wanted to cancel it entirely as it was unaffordable. At the end, the French state didn’t finance the line, and required SNCF to find private loans on the international market, though it did guarantee those loans. It also delayed the line’s opening: instead of opening the entire line from Paris to Lyon in one go, it opened two-thirds of it on the Lyon side in 1981 and the last third into Paris in 1983, requiring trains to run on the classical line at low speed between Paris and Saint-Florentin for two years; in that era, phased opening was uncommon, and lines generally opened to the end at once, such as between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka.

Construction was extraordinarily inexpensive. In PPP 2022 dollars, it cost $8.4 million/km. This is, by a margin, the lowest-cost high-speed rail line ever built that I know about. The Tokaido Shinkansen cost 380 billion yen, or in PPP 2022 dollars $40 million/km, representing a factor of two cost overrun that forced JNR’s head to resign. Spain has unusually low construction costs, and even there, Madrid-Seville was $15.7 million/km. SNCF innovated in every way possible to save money. Realizing that high-speed trains could climb steeper grades, it built the LGV Sud-Est with a ruling grade of 3.5%, which has since become a norm in and around Europe, compared with the Shinkansen’s 1.5-2%; the line has no tunnels, unlike the classical Paris-Lyon line. It built the line on the ground rather than on viaducts, and balanced cut and fill locally so that material cut to grade the line could be used for nearby fill. Thanks to the line’s low costs and high ridership, the financial return on investment for SNCF has been 15%, and social return on investment has been 30% (source, pp. 11-12).

This cost-effectiveness would never recur. The line’s success ensured that LGV construction would enjoy total political backing. The core features of LGV construction are still there – earthworks rather than viaducts, 3.5% grades, limited tunneling, overcompensation of landowners by about 30% with land swap deals to defuse the possibility of farmer riots. But the next few lines cost about $20 million/km or slightly less, and this cost has since crept up to about $30 million/km or even more. This remains low by international standards (but not by Spanish ones), but the trend is negative.

SNCF is coasting on its success from a generation ago, secure that funding for LGVs and state support in political contention is forthcoming, and the routing decisions have grown worse. In response to NIMBYism in Provence, the French state assented to a tunnel-heavy route, including a conversion of Marseille from an at-grade terminal to an underground through-station, akin to Stuttgart 21, which has not been done before in France, and the resulting high costs have led to delays on the project. Operations have grown ever more airline-style, experimenting with low-cost airline imitation to the point of reducing fare receipts without any increase in ridership. One of the French consultants we’ve spoken with said that their company’s third-party design costs are 7-8% of the hard costs, which figure is similar to what we’ve seen in Italy and to the in-house rate in Spain – but the same consultant told us that there is so much bloat at SNCF that when it designs its own projects, the costs are not 7% but 25%, a figure in line with American rates.

Bahn 2000

Switzerland has Europe’s strongest passenger rail network by all measures: highest traffic measured by passenger-km per capita, highest modal split for passenger-km, highest traffic density. Its success is well-known in surrounding countries, which are gradually either imitate its methods or, in the case of Germany, pretending to do so. It has achieved its success through continuous improvement over the generations, but the most notable element of this system was implemented in the 1990s as part of the Bahn 2000 project.

The current system is based on a national-scale clockface system (“Takt”) with trains repeating hourly, with the strongest links, like the Zurich-Bern-Basel triangle, running every half hour. Connections are timed in those three cities and several others, called knots, so that trains enter each station a few minutes before the connection time (usually the hour) and depart a few minutes after, permitting passengers to get between most pairs of Swiss cities with short transfers. Reliability is high, thanks to targeted investments designed to ensure that trains could make those connections in practice and not just in theory. Further planning centers adding more knots and expanding this system to the periphery of Switzerland.

Switzerland is famous for its consensus governance system – its plural executive is drawn from the four largest parties in proportion to their votes, with no coalition vs. opposition politics. But the process that led to the decision to adopt Bahn 2000 was not at all one of unanimity. There had been plans to build high-speed rail, as there were nearly everywhere else in Western Europe. But they were criticized for their high costs, and there was extensive center-right pressure to cut the budget. Bahn 2000 was thus conceived in an environment of austerity. Many of its features were explicitly about saving money:

  • The knot system is connected with running trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible. Investments in speed are pursued only insofar as they permit trains to make their connections; higher speeds are considered gratuitous.
  • Bilevel trains are an alternative to lengthening the platforms.
  • Timed overtakes and meets are an alternative to more extensive multi-tracking of lines.
  • Investment in better timetabling and systems (the electronics side of the electronics-before-concrete slogan) is cheaper than adding tunnels and viaducts.

Swiss megaprojects have to go to referendum, and sometimes the referendums return a no; this happened with the Zurich U-Bahn twice, leading to the construction of the S-Bahn instead. All Swiss planners know in a country this small and this fiscally conservative, any extravagance will lead to rejection. The result is that they’ve instead optimized construction at all levels, and even their unit costs of tunneling are low; thanks to such optimization, Switzerland has been able to build a fairly extensive medium-speed rail system, with more tunneling per capita than Germany (let alone France), and with two S-Bahn trunk tunnels in Zurich, where no German city today has more than one.

The American situation

The worst offenders in the United States are not at all politically precarious. There is practically unanimous consensus in New York about the necessity of Second Avenue Subway. At no point was the project under any threat. There is an ideological right in the city, rooted less in party politics and more in the New York Post and the Manhattan Institute, with a law-and-order agenda and hostility to unions and to large government programs, but at no point did they call for cancellation; the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas has proposed pension cuts for workers and rule changes reducing certain benefits, but not canceling Second Avenue Subway.

At intercity scale, the same is true of Northeast Corridor investment. The libertarian and conservative pundits who say passenger rail is a waste of money tend to except the Northeast Corridor, or at least its southern half. When the Republicans won the 2010 midterm election, the new chair of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, John Mica (R-FL), proposed a bill to seek private concessionaires to run intercity rail on the corridor. He did not propose canceling train service, even though in the wake of the same election, multiple conservative governors canceled intercity rail investments in their state, both high-speed (Florida) and low-speed (Wisconsin, Ohio).

In fact, both programs – New York subway expansion and the Northeast Corridor – are characterized by continuity across partisan shifts, as in more established consensus governance systems. The Northeast Corridor is especially notable for how little role ideological or partisan politics has played so far. New York has micromanagement by politicians – Andrew Cuomo had his pet projects in Penn Station Access and the backward-facing LaGuardia air train, and now Kathy Hochul has hers in the Interborough Express – but Second Avenue Subway was internal, and besides, political micromanagement is a different problem from political precarity.

And neither of these programs has engaged in any cost control. To the contrary, both are run as if money is infinite. The MTA would surrender to NIMBYs (“good neighbor policy”) and to city agencies looking to extract money from it. It built oversize stations. It spent money protecting buildings from excessive settlement that have been subsequently demolished for redevelopment at higher density.

The various agencies involved in the Northeast Corridor, likewise, are profligate, and not for lack of political support. Connecticut is full of NIMBYs; one of the consultants working on the plan a few years ago told me there was informal pressure not to ruffle feathers and not to touch anything in the wealthiest suburbs in the state, those of Fairfield County. In fact, high-speed rail construction would require significant house demolitions in the state’s second wealthiest town, Darien – but Darien is so infamously exclusive (“Darien rhymes with Aryan,” say other suburbanites in the area) that the rest of the region feels little solidarity with it.

NIMBYs aside, there has not been any effort at coordinating the different agencies in the Northeast along anything resembling the Swiss Takt system. This is not about precarity, because this is not a precarious project; this is about total ignorance and incuriosity about best practices, which emanate from a place that doesn’t natively speak English and doesn’t trade in American political references.

The Green Line Extension

Boston’s GLX is a fascinating example of cost blowouts without precarity. The history of the project is that its first iteration was pushed by Governor Deval Patrick (D), with the support of groups that sued the state for its delays in planning the project in the 1990s, as a court-mandated mitigation for the extra car traffic induced by the construction of the Big Dig. Patrick instituted a good neighbor policy, in which everything a community group wanted, it would get. Thus, stations were to become neighborhood signatures, and the project was laden with unrelated investments, called betterments, like a $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path.

At no point in the eight years Patrick was in power was there a political threat to the project. It was court-mandated, and the extractive local groups that live off of suing the government favored it. The Obama administration was generous with federal stimulus funding, and the designs were rushed in order to use stimulus funding to pay for the project’s design, which would be done by consultants rather than with an expansion of in-house hiring. It’s in this atmosphere of profligacy that the project’s cost exploded to, in today’s money, around $3.5 billion, for 7 km of light rail in existing rights-of-way (albeit ones requiring overpass reconstruction).

The project did fall under political threat, after Charlie Baker (R) won the 2014 election. Baker’s impact on Massachusetts governance is fascinating, in that he unambiguously cut its budget significantly in the short run, but also had both before (as budget director in the 1990s) and during (through his actions as governor) wrecked the state’s long-term ability to execute infrastructure, setting up a machine intended to privatize the state and avoiding any in-house hiring. Nonetheless, the direct impact of precarity on GLX was to reduce scope: the betterments were removed and the stations were changed from too big to too small. The final cost was $2.3 billion, or around $2.8 billion in 2022 dollars, and half of that was sunk cot from the previous iteration.

There was no expectation that the project would be canceled – indeed, it was not. A Republican victory was unexpected in a state this left-wing. Then, as Baker was taking office, past governors from both parties expressed optimism that he would get not just GLX done but also the much more complex North-South Rail Link tunnel. Nor did contractors have their contracts yanked unexpectedly, which would get them to bid higher for risk compensation. Baker cold-shouldered not jut NSRL but also much smaller investments in commuter rail, but at no point was anyone stiffed in the process. No: the Patrick-era project was just poorly managed.

Project selection

As one caveat, I want to point out a place where precarity does lead to poor project cost-effectiveness: the project selection stage, in the context of tax referendums, especially in Southern California. None of this leads to high per-kilometer costs – Los Angeles’s are exactly as bad as in the rest of the United States – but it does lead to poor project selection, as an unintended consequence of anti-tax New Right politics.

The California-specific issue is that raising taxes requires a referendum, with a two-thirds vote. Swiss referendums are by simple majority, or at most double majority – but in practice most referendums that have a popular vote majority, even a small one, also have a double majority when needed, and in the last 15 years I believe the only two times they didn’t had the double majority veto overturning a 1.5% margin and a 9% margin.

California’s requirement of a two-thirds majority was intended to stop wasteful spending and taxation, but has had the opposite effect. In and around San Francisco, the voters are sufficiently left-wing that two-thirds majorities for social policy are not hard to obtain. But in Southern California, they are not; to build public transportation infrastructure, Los Angeles and San Diego County governments cannot rely on ideology, but instead cut deals with local, non-ideological actors through promising them a piece of the package. Los Angeles measures for transit expansion are, by share of money committed, largely not about transit expansion but operations, new buses, or leakage to roads and bridges; then, what does go to transit expansion is divvied by region, with each region getting something, no matter how cost-ineffective, while core improvements are neglected and so are cross-regional connections (since the local extractive actors aren’t going to ride the trains and can’t tell a circumferential project is useful for them).

This is not a US-wide phenomenon. It’s not even California-wide: this problem is absent from the Bay Area, where BART decided against an expansion to Livermore that was unpopular among technically-oriented advocates, and would like to build more core capacity if it could do so for much less than a billion dollars per km. New York does not have it at all (for one, it doesn’t require two-thirds majorities for budgeting).

At intercity scale, this precarity does cause Amtrak to maximize how many states and congressional districts it runs money-losing daily trains in. But wasting money on night trains and on peripheral regions is hardly a US-only problem – Japan National Railways did that until well past privatization, when its successors spun off money-losing branch lines to prefecture-subsidized third sector railways. This is not at all why there is no plan for Northeastern intercity rail that is worth its weight in dirt: Northeastern rail improvements have been amply funded relative to objective need (if not relative to American costs), and solid investments in the core coexist with wastes of money on the periphery of the network in many countries.

The issue of politicization

The precarious, low-cost examples all had to cut costs because of fiscal pressure. However, in all three, the pressure did not include any politicization of engineering questions. Sweden was setting up a civil service modeled on the American Bureau of Public Roads, currently the Federal Highway Administration, which in the middle of the 20th century was a model of depoliticized governance. France and Switzerland have strong civil service bureaucracies – if anything SNCF is too self-contained and needs reorganization, just not if it’s led by the usual French elites or by people from the airline industry.

Importantly, low-cost countries with more clientelism and politicization of the state tend to be more deferential to the expertise of engineers. Greece has a far worse problem of overreliance on political appointees than the United States, let alone the other European democracies; but engineering is somewhat of an exception. Hispanic and Portuguese-speaking cultures put great prestige on engineering, reducing the extent of political micromanagement, even in countries without strong apolitical civil service bureaucracies. Even in Turkey, the politicization of public transportation is entirely at macro level: AKP promises to prioritize investment in areas that vote for it and has denied financing to the Istanbul Metro since the city flipped to the opposition (the city instead borrows money from the European Investment Bank), but below that level there is no micromanagement.

The American examples, in contrast, show much more political micromanagement. This is part of the same package as the privatization of state planning in the globalized system; in the United States often there was never the depoliticization that most of the rest of the developed and middle-income world had, but on top of that, the tendency has been to shut down in-house planning departments or radically shrink them and replace them with consultants. The consultants are then supervised by political appointees with no real qualifications to head capital programs, and the remaining civil servants are browbeaten not to disagree with the political appointees’ proclamations.

Those political appointees rarely measure themselves by any criteria of infrastructure utility. Even in New York they and the managers don’t consistently use the system; in Los Angeles, they use it about as often as the executive director of a well-endowed charity eats at a soup kitchen. To them, the cost is itself a measure of success – and this is true of other agencies, which treat obtaining other people’s money as a mark of achievement and as testament to their power. This behavior then cascades to local advocacy groups, which try to push solutions that maximize outside funding and are at bet indifferent and at worst actively hostile to any attempt at efficiency.

Just giving more support to agencies in their current configuration is not going to help. To the contrary, it only confirms that profligacy gets rewarded. A program of depoliticization of the state is required in tandem with expanding in-house hiring and reversing the globalized system, and the political appointees and the managers and political advocates who are used to dealing with them don’t belong in this program.